First look inside WIPP radiation cleanup

ALBUQURQUE (KRQE) – New photos from deep inside New Mexico’s WIPP site show that crews are getting closer to finding out how radioactive contamination spread through their nuclear waste mine and into the countryside near Carlsbad, NM.

Teams in protective environmental suits have been gradually probing farther into the tunnels more than 2,000 feet below the New Mexico desert.

Each diverse 8-person team is made up of nuclear experts, miners and emergency services people.

“It is a unique element to be able to put these individuals together, to respect the roles that they have, but then also learn how to work together, so they’re protecting each other,” says WIPP reentry team leader Wes Bryan.

To enter the nuclear waste facility’s underground, teams are lowered down the shaft normally used to haul salt out.

However, because it also supplies fresh air, that airflow through the salt handling shaft kept an area at the bottom from getting contaminated.

From the “safe zone” at the bottom of the shaft, the “leak area” is more than half a mile away underground.

New photos show the teams traversing the long distances on foot.

They cannot yet use motorized vehicles for fear of spreading contamination.

A clean staging area has been established very close to, but not yet within sight of the leak.

Teams carry devices to alert them to contamination.

“The equipment provides a real time audio and visual alarm,” says Bryan. “If we get those alarms, we will suspend the activity and retreat back to a safer environment.”

The final push to the leak requires more protection for teams than the lightweight gear so far.

A couple of layers of environmental suits are needed and more advanced breathing gear.

The teams already trained on that equipment at a nearby potash mine.

Managers at WIPP hope to eventually seal the leak and return the mine to service.

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